Opinion: Why sports were a big relief in a terrible 2016

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Ah, 2016.

Politics, celebrity deaths (three of them last week) and all sorts of other of madness gave so many of us a year we wish we could forget. But as we head into the new year and try to put the previous one in the rear-view mirror, it’s important to look back at some of the positives of the past 12 months.

Particularly, it’s good to consider how sports, one of society’s greatest distractions, delivered us joy when all else failed. The heartwarming stories, the crazy games and the incredible moments all made for a great year. Though not every team’s fan base may have felt victorious this year, for fans of the games themselves, 2016 was one to remember.

So let’s look back at the times sports made 2016 feel less like the awful mess that it was.

Cleveland finally gets its moment

Everybody loves a good underdog, right? Well, nothing makes you more of an underdog than five straight decades of sports misery. For years now, the city of Cleveland has been synonymous with losing. Its history has been punctuated with stunning defeats and collapses, often in the biggest games. Fifty-two years without a title only exacerbated the woes of a declining Rust Belt city still recovering from the loss of its industry.

But in 2016, all things were possible, and that includes bringing a trophy to Ohio’s least respected sports municipality.

For Cleveland, salvation finally arrived on a basketball court in the most improbable of fashions. Four games into the NBA Finals, Cleveland fans found themselves settling in for another defeat. With their Cavaliers down 3-1 in the series to Stephen Curry and the record-setting Golden State Warriors, it seemed as though this year was, once again, not their year.

But then, something amazing happened. LeBron James, the hometown hero-turned-villain-turned-hero again, put together consecutive 41 point performances, and the Cavs tied the series 3-3. What followed was the most gripping NBA game in recent memory. Game 7 featured two well-matched teams battling it out neck-and-neck until the final seconds. With the game tied 89-89 and less than a minute left, Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving nailed a beautifully clutch three to push past the Warriors and win the title.

For sports fans, there was truly something special about watching such a tortured city finally get its moment to celebrate. The dramatic way it unfolded only added to the wonderful story. Any sports fan can appreciate what a title means for the people of Cleveland. OK, maybe not Bay-Area fans, but still.

A curse is broken in Chi-Town

How can you top breaking a 52-year drought? Maybe by breaking one more than twice as long.

The city of Chicago has had countless champions over the years, but for its beloved baseball team, a title hasn’t come since before World War I. For 108 long years, the Cubs have been perceived as, at worst, an eternally bad franchise and, at best, one that’s been cursed by a farm animal.

As the story goes, a fan was escorted out of Wrigley Field during a 1945 game because the odor of his pet goat was disturbing other guests. On his way out, the man allegedly placed a curse on the team, prohibiting them from ever winning another World Series. Whether the tale was true or just a superstition suddenly became an irrelevant question in October 2016.

After a stellar season and a dominant playoff run, the Cubs found themselves on the edge of a World Series elimination. This time it was the Cleveland team with a 3-1 lead in the series, as the Indians inched closer to their own improbable championship. But just like the NBA’s Cavs, the Cubs found a way to rally and stormed back to force a game 7.

In that final game, the Cubs withstood a furious Cleveland comeback in the eighth inning and narrowly prevailed 8-7 in extra innings (and after a 90-minute rain delay). Even without the historical storylines surrounding the teams, the series was arguably one of the best in baseball’s history, with game 7 heralded as one of the greatest ever.

That’s two massive Cinderella stories, with two insane comebacks, in two of the country’s biggest sports, in one year. In 2016, historic wins were delivered to fan bases that, combined, waited two-thirds of this nation’s existence to see a championship team. In those games, both leagues saw some of the most thrilling matches of their respective histories with record-high ratings to match. If that alone doesn’t make 2016 a great year for sports, I honestly don’t know what could.

Colorado football returns to relevance

On a more local note, 2016’s theme of rising from the ashes and overcoming years of mediocrity was apparent in Boulder as the University of Colorado football team finally found success after decades of failure.

After a rise to prominence in the late `80s, a national championship in 1990 and continued success through that decade, the Colorado Buffaloes fell flat in the mid-2000s. Routinely finding themselves at the bottom of the Big 12, the Buffs suffered through years of bad coaching, uninspired play and disappointing results. Things only got worse as the 2010s dawned, as CU left the Big 12 for the powerhouse-laden Pac-10 (now the Pac-12) in 2011. Under head coach Jon Embree, the Buffs 2012 campaign was one of the worst in the BCS history with a 1-11 record and a loss to FCS opponent Sacramento State.

Things didn’t immediately get better with the hiring of head coach Mike MacIntyre, who took over before the 2013 season, but as more losing seasons went by, hope somehow continued to grow in Boulder. The skill, the coaching and the experience were all there, but the question of when Colorado would return to college football relevance still loomed over the Flatirons like a perpetual cold front.

Then 2016 happened, and the team that only had one conference win in three seasons suddenly was competing for that conference’s championship. Led by a tough-as-nails senior quarterback Sefo Liufau and a mature defensive squad rife with NFL-level talent, the Buffs shocked the world in 2016 and executed one of college football’s most amazing turnarounds.

Schools like Oregon and Stanford, teams that had used Colorado as a punching bag in past years, found themselves victims of #TheRise and a Colorado team that decided to skip a few years of the rebuilding process. After a 4-9 effort in 2015, the Buffs went from worst to first in the conference in just one season, finishing 10-4 with appearances in the Pac-12 Championship Game and the Alamo Bowl.

Now, the story may not have had the best ending — consecutive beat-downs by Washington and Oklahoma State certainly put a damper on the team’s year. So did losing celebrated defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt to conference rival Oregon.

But what’s important to remember is that only a couple of years ago, these kind of embarrassing blowouts were depressingly common throughout all of the regular season. Don’t let the disappointment of a loss to a top-15 team obscure the fact that before September, not a single sports analyst on the planet would have predicted the Buffs to even be there. To think that Colorado would reach as high as No. 8 in the CFP poll and come within sniffing distance of a playoff spot is insane and only emphasizes the upside-down nature of this crazy year. Whether or not it came with a happy ending, the Rise was, in fact, real.

Other moments of optimism

There were plenty of other great moments in 2016. Peyton Manning earning another ring in his final season comes to mind. So does Villanova’s buzzer-beating victory over North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament finale. Leicester City’s miraculous story also fits well in this year of improbability.

There were still some bad times to be sure: The Rio Olympics (though not as disastrous as expected) showed us all that the international competition is dying. Things like the Chapecoense plane crash and terrorist attacks at a Turkish soccer match reminded us that sports are not immune from the kind of tragedies that made 2016 so cruel.

But as a whole, a lot of incredible things happened in sports, and unlike with most other things in 2016, that was actually a good thing. At its core, sports are really nothing more than entertainment, but this year it was some damn good entertainment. Athletics might be ultimately pointless in the bigger picture, but don’t tell that to the fans who were given a reason to smile when little else made them. When all else failed, sports gave us the happy distractions we needed. In other words, they fulfilled their purpose in our society, and did so emphatically.

So yeah, 2016 was actually pretty great — maybe not in the headlines, but in the scoreboards and hearts of once-lowly franchises and their fans. It might not be enough to offset everything else that happened, but hey, there’s always next year.

Contact CU Independent Sports Staff Writer Kyle Rini at kyle.rini@colorado.edu.

Kyle Rini

Assistant Sports Editor Kyle Rini is a Colorado native born and raised in Monument, CO. As a senior at CU Boulder, he pursues a bachelors in Journalism with a minor in Political Science.

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